Guest Post by YA author Luisa Plaja. In Search of a Yellow Star: Teen Fiction Through the Decades
One of my favourite talks when I do school visits is the one I call “Teen Fiction Myths”. And one of my favourite myths is that teen fiction is a New Thing. I hear adults well under the age of 60 mentioning this all the time. “The kids of today are lucky,” they say. “We didn’t have any books aimed at teenagers in my day.”
“Really?” I always want to say. “You didn’t have fiction with teenaged protagonists, exploring coming-of-age issues and relationships from a teen point of view? Are you SURE?”
I don’t usually say that, though. If the person is lucky, I nod and smile and move on. But the unlucky few get me climbing on my soap box and saying the following, only in a lot more words and animated hand gestures, causing a lot more watch-checking and sudden-bus-arrival in my ‘listener’...
Teen fiction has existed ever since adolescence became recognised as a distinct stage in life, sometime in the late 1940s or early 1950s.
Sure, I can argue the case for books that people don’t necessarily see as teen fiction, such as J D Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. But I don’t just mean those. I’m talking about all the other, less famous books where the point of view is that of a young adult in the moment, and not looking back. I’m talking about the kinds of books I’ve always loved reading – and writing.
From the age of about 10, I’d scour the spines of the Harrow Library Services children’s sections for the yellow star that meant “teen”. I’d pounce on the books I found, borrowing them many times. In fact, it’s that very yellow star that lead me to reach the above conclusion. Hunting through my old books one day last year, I came across a yellow-starred book I bought for 2p when it was retired from Harrow Libraries in the late eighties – a book called Fifteen by Beverly Cleary. And the publication date? 1956. Yet, in many ways, it could have been written today. Take this quote from when our heroine is in the presence of a boy she likes. “Sitting down and standing up had always been such a simple process until now. Suddenly life seemed unbearably complicated.”
Having said all this, I’ll jump off my soap box and admit that there is probably much more fiction like this now, which can only be a good thing, in my opinion. And also from the point of view of my teenaged, yellow-star-seeking self, who has never left me.
Just for fun, try this quiz. I have one short opening extract of a book published in each of the following decades: 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and noughties. The books are all aimed at teenage girls. Can you guess which decade they are from? I’ll put the answers and book details in the comments when this is posted, so don’t click the comments yet if you want to try the test!
1. It’s hard to know where to begin telling you this. I wonder if there’s even such a thing as a beginning – or maybe there is, but you can never pin it to one time or one place.
2. Getting to be thirteen turned out to be an absolute and complete bummer. I mean it. What a letdown.
3. I am in a cupboard, and I’m snogging the coolest and most gorgeous boy in the whole school.
4. Penny thought it was a wonderful piece of luck that they were moving house on a Thursday, because nobody, not even Miss Wolff, would expect her to do her arithmetic homework in the middle of a move.
5. As the hot water pounded down on me, I was suddenly aware I was not alone. Someone was standing very close to me, under the same shower. I opened my eyes, blinking away water. It was him.
6. Today I’m going to meet a boy, Jane Purdy told herself, as she walked up Blossom Street toward her baby-sitting job.
Luisa Plaja is author of teen novels including Split by a Kiss, Extreme Kissing and Swapped by a Kiss, and editor of teen fiction site Chicklish.co.uk